Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Blind Spot: The General

There's a theory among cinephiles that when it comes to the comedians of the silent film era, you fall into one of two categories: You're either a fan of Charlie Chaplin and his "Little Tramp" character or a fan of Buster Keaton–"The Great Stone Face". Having never seen a film from either of them, I could never accurately make an educated opinion on the matter. But, having finally caught up with Buster Keaton's The General–what some consider to be the greatest silent film ever made–I guess I'm gonna have to declare myself a Chaplin fan, sight unseen. Because the truth is, well, here goes: I didn't care for The General.

I'll be the first to admit that my education and knowledge of silent film extends to only a handful of pictures, but the thing is, I really enjoyed those other films (Metropolis, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, and The Passion of Joan of Arc). So, it's not that I'm against silent films as a whole. Nor do I think the label of "Greatest Silent Film...EVER!" was making my expectations impossibly high. After all, Citizen Kane is considered by most to be the "Greatest Film Ever. Period" and it more than lived up to whatever baggage can come with such a lofty title. (And, believe me, I was prepared to be disappointed. But, damned if it doesn't live up to its hype.)

At the time of its release in December 1926, The General was actually considered a flop. So much so, that it cost Buster Keaton the freedom he had as a filmmaker and he was forced to enter a contract with MGM that severely restricted his control. It wasn't until recently that its status has grown to be included among the greats. But, I'm gonna have to take the side of the critics from the 20s who found the film to be tedious and, worst of all, just not funny.

Set in the South at the start of the Civil War, Buster Keaton plays Johnnie Gray a train engineer who has two loves in his life, his engine–The General–and his girl, Annabelle Lee. After the firing on Fort Sumnter, Annabelle's father and brother go to enlist in the army. Johnnie, wanting to impress his lady, goes as well, but is dismissed. They believe he'll be better for the cause in the position he's already in. Annabelle tells him she doesn't want to see him again until he's in uniform. A distraught Johnnie sits on the rod of the engine's wheels and, in the most iconic moment of the film, he begins to move up and down with the rod as the train pulls out of the station.

If you know anything about this film, you know about this scene. But, it was over so quickly that it barely had time to register as a moment. Just when the train begins to pick up momentum, it enters into a tunnel and we lose sight of Keaton. I understand how dangerous it is to sit on a moving train the way he did, I just wish it had been just slightly longer.

A year has passed. Annabelle takes The General to visit her wounded father, but little does she know that the Northern army intends to hijack the train from Johnnie when the passengers are at dinner so that they can take it back North and destroy the track and bridges along the way. Unfortunately, she's in the train at the time and taken hostage.

Johnnie sets about trying to get his train back first by foot, then by bicycle, and then finally takes another train to pursue them. An almost 20 minute "chase scene" ensues involving one train right behind the other. On a track. I gotta say, nothing could be more exhilarating than two slow moving trains in hot pursuit.

There's plenty of business to fill the time. Including a bit with a canon, that's not particularly funny if you've seen a Looney Tunes cartoon. (Come to think of it, I never found it funny in the cartoons either.) But, it all just starts to seems like business. And in another daring stunt, Keaton sits on the front of the train and deflects falling railroad tracks. I have to admit, it's pretty impressive when he's able to knock them out of the way of the track, but it's bit that falls flat comedically. Is it supposed to be funny or are we just supposed to applaud this feat of daring do?

After rescuing Annabelle and overhearing about a plot to invade and take the Southern troops by surprise, we now get a second train chase that's also over 20 minutes long. This time the Yankees are in pursuit of Johnnie, who has taken back The General. Have I mentioned that the film is only about an hour and 15 minutes long. The entire length of the film is practically made up of train chase sequences. Once the second one started, that's when I started getting an incredible felling of deja vu and my mind began to wander.

Keaton's comedy is known for two trademarks: his incredible stunt work in which he literally risks life and limb. The other, his stoic reaction to things at a time when the norm in silent films was to be over the top–especially in comedy.

The film is filled with dangerous stunt work. In addition to the feats mentioned before, he flings himself about the moving train and runs across the roof with such abandon, it's amazing he made it through filming alive. But how is almost killing yourself for comedy worth it? Especially when the stunts aren't exactly funny, but more a test of endurance.

A classic example of his stoicism, occurs at the end of the film when he's made a lieutenant. Trying to kiss Annabelle, he is constantly interrupted by soldiers saluting him–a higher ranking officer. When an entire troop passes by, he calmly turns and blindly starts to salute as he finally gets the kiss he's after. It's actually one of the funnier scenes in the film. But instead of laughing out loud (which I never did the entire film), you find yourself thinking it's funny instead of actually finding it funny. And that is ultimately the disconnect for me regarding Keaton and the film. There is much to admire. All the elements are there. But, in the end, the admiration isn't enough. You don't want to think something is funny–you want to actually let loose with a laugh of approval.

This post is apart of Ryan McNeil's Blind Spot Series at The Matinee. On the last Tuesday of ever month you watch and write about a movie that is considered important in the cinema lexicon, but that you've somehow missed along the way.

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